Pokémon Sword and Shield Review.


Pokémon finally joins the modern DLC era.

Yesterday, Game Freak announced expansion packs for Pokémon Sword and Shield. The first, Isle of Armor, is set to launch this June. The Crown Tundra will follow in the fall. In addition to new rivals, clothing, and areas, the expansion pack will also introduce new co-op, legendaries, and a wider pokédex. For most games, this would be standard news. For Pokémon, it’s almost revolutionary.

Pokémon moves at a glacial pace when it comes to major changes. It’s taken roughly two decades for its traditional RPG experience to land on a console. Before that, it felt revolutionary when the series finally introduced online play or 3D graphics — years after many games had already done so. Sword and Shield, released last year, were the series’s arrivals in the modern era. In 2019, that is, just as this console generation prepares to give way to the next.

Unlike Pokémon Let’s Go, a pair of simplified adventures taking inspiration from the original Pokémon Yellow, Sword and Shield offered something bigger, more exciting. Gym battles take place in cheering arenas; pokémon grow to skyscraper heights; a huge, new “Wild Area” offers a place players can return to over and over to explore. Galar is a region ripe for new adventures. What form improvements took was up for debate.

Game Freak has made a habit of revisiting regions with a more refined, usually definitive, version. Pokémon Red and Blue were followed up by Yellow, a game that more closely followed the popular animated show and gave players access to a full pokédex. Titles like Pokémon Emerald, Crystal, and Platinum came after their respective generations to offer a more robust experience. Other games, like Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, skipped a third go entirely and released as enhanced versions of their predecessors, Pokémon Sun and Moon.

While it’s easy to appreciate improvements on any Pokémon game — who wouldn’t want their favorite experiences thoughtfully retooled into something even better? — the practice isn’t consumer-friendly. A new game, better or not, inevitably means handing over more money. It also asks players to invest a lot of time in content they’ve mostly been through already just to enjoy any new features. It’s a dated practice that, in an industry that’s made DLC a common refrain, has long felt out of touch with players.

Game Freak’s pivot with Sword and Shield into expansions rather than enhanced versions solves these problems in a simple way. Players can continue their journeys with existing save files rather than starting fresh. New storylines, characters, and other content will be integrated into the game’s world, the developer claims, as seamlessly as Sword and Shield’s Wild Area. Older pokémon that didn’t make the original cut are also being added to the game’s pokédex through these new areas.

For Sword and Shield, the series’s first mainline Switch games, it’s a perfect way to build on an already excellent adventure. The game’s main quest — to best the region’s gyms and claim a champion title — is easily completed. But becoming a pokémon champion during your tender teenage years doesn’t need to signal the end of a trainer’s journey.

By moving past the main conceit of the games, Game Freak is opening up Sword and Shield to far more exciting adventures. What happens to trainers who get everything they want at their first shot? What does it mean to be a champion? And what role does any pokémon master play in their competitive world? There’s never been enough time to even pose these questions. Maybe now, players can find out what happens to trainers who no longer have to catch ‘em all.

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